Saturday, 12 September 2015

“Wisdom cries out in the street”

“Wisdom cries out in the street”

Wisdom in the ancient world was a woman crying out for people to seek after knowledge to not be foolish
but to be wise.

Seeking wisdom was akin to seeking after God and those who are in awe of God, who understand God’s sovereignty as the creator, will seek after knowledge.

In this passage to do otherwise is considered the province of the simple and of the foolish and the consequence of failing to seek wisdom is suffering.

These are certainly challenging words and as a person who is interested in understanding life and the world and God I was drawn to these words like a bee to a pollen laden flower.

I went to school that had the motto “In fide scientiam” to faith add knowledge and for me this has very much shaped my spiritual journey as an adult.  Even now I am enrolled in formal studies to grow in my understanding and am committed to the teaching of others about the depths of the mystery of God’s love.

Yet I have been challenged over the years by people in congregations who have had said to me that they have a ‘simple’ faith. 

The proverbs passage speaks of the simply loving to be simple and this can be a problem.

This week I was sharing with some friends who are not regular church attendees that I was going to speak about the notion of a having a wise simple faith in my sermon – their automatic response was that people who have a simple faith have a blind faith.

The reality is that sometimes people who claim to have a simple faith are using this as a protective barrier for their faith because some concepts and problems are just too difficult for them. Sometimes people who claim to have a simple faith use this as an excuse not to engage seriously in connecting their relationship with God and their life: at home, at work, within the community, or at church. 

I have heard it said by many people that they do not understand why people switch their brains off when they go through the church door and there is a level of frustration that often people who have been in the church for many years seem to have not explored Christian teaching any more deeply than when they attended Sunday School.

Despite all of these problems with the claim to have a simple faith I do believe that you can have a simple faith that has a depth to it – a wisdom behind it.  In fact for most us it is the simple statement of faith that keep us going.

The encounter that we heard about today between Jesus and Peter is in my mind an example of this growth in wisdom through a simple statement of faith made by Peter.

As I discussed during the call to worship Jesus asked the disciples “Who do people say that I am?”  He then asked them more directly, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter’s answer is in some ways a simple answer arising from a conviction of faith. “You are the Messiah.”  I have often said of this passage it is the hinge on which the whole of Mark’s gospel swings.  Peter hits the nail on head – he gets it dead right. “You are the Messiah.”

It is not a complex statement but it is a loaded statement.  The idea of the Messiah and the prophecies around the Messiah are all tied up with God choosing and anointing a leader for Israel, a leader that was expected to somehow restore Israel.

It is likely that when Peter made this statement, filled with hope as he was, that Jesus, as the Messiah, would lead the Israelites to overthrow the Romans, or would in some other way restore the glory of the Holy City Jerusalem, and the prestige of God’s people.

Of course what we heard in what for many of us is a familiar story is that Jesus intention as the Messiah is perplexing for Peter:

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

This is not what Peter was expecting, his simple faith as correct as it was, was shattered.  Jesus can’t suffer. It simply did not make sense.

The simple statement needed more depth behind it, greater wisdom.  Not the wisdom of the world though.  Some of you may remember that in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians Pauls explains the paradox of Jesus suffering saying the cross appears as foolishness and “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

Each statement we make about our faith is a loaded statement.  Peter had loaded his simple faith claim with meanings that had domesticated Jesus and God’s work to his understandings. This had to be reversed and challenged by Jesus.

And though we know the whole story, we hear about the incarnation, the suffering, the death and the resurrection of Jesus we should be aware that our simply faith statements are just as loaded.

It is not wrong to make these simple statements of faith because often they are what keep us going but at the same time a wise faith is one that understands as Paul understood we only every see through a dark glass – we do not get the full picture.  Regardless of how much we know we cannot contain God in the box of what we know nor domesticate the mystery of grace for our own purposes.

Our faith can be simple, it can be summarised by single sentences that keep us going, but these sentences and the concepts they contain should not be straight-jackets we place on God ourselves or others.  They should be points of departure for us to listen to the teaching of Jesus and of each other as witnesses to the story of God’s love.

A couple of months ago I went to a workshop where we were asked to summarise our faith into a sentence.  It was like imaging being asked by someone: ‘Why do you continue to follow Jesus?’ or ‘Why are you a Christian?’

In my response I simply said “God is for us; God is not against us”. It is a statement that on the surface is simple but has great depth to it.  It is a statement that pushes me to seek knowledge of God and listen to God.  It is a statement that I try not to make a barrier to others but an invitation to learning and encounter for me and for others.

Wisdom cries out in the street.  Peter states his simple faith.  Jesus invites Peter to follow him to the depths of the foolishness of God’s love.  God shares our life in Jesus and impossible God shares our death and remakes it in Jesus.

Who is Jesus? He is the Messiah?

What is he teaching us today?

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Mark 7: Two Healings: Amazing Grace!

In the hymn we just sung “Your words to me are life and health” and often when we think of God’s words to us we think of the Bible.

Yet I must admit that there are times when we sing these words after reading the scriptures I would prefer to be singing “Your words to me are dark and confusing”.

The reading from Mark’s gospel, especially the story of Jesus encounter with the Syrophonecian woman, is a prime example of a Biblical story that is perplexing.

I did consider that given it is Father’s Day maybe I should choose something different and preach around the theme of fatherhood.   Yet that topic is problematic as well.  For some of us Fathers day is a difficult day.  It is a reminder of a life without a father, or with a father who abused us.  It is a reminder that our father is no longer with us or is unwell and aging.  It can be a reminder that we might feel we have failed as a father to be all we can be for our kids.  It is a day that can be filled with as much angst as it is filled with joy.

So I decided maybe dealing with the difficulties of the story in Mark remained that better option.  Avoiding the difficult passages does not make them go away and how might this confusing passage provide “life and health” for we who are gathered.

So why is the passage so difficult?

As I read different commentaries, blogs and old sermons I had preached on this passage I had a sense that
there were a number of topical doorways I could choose to walk through.

Let me share some of those doorways:

  1. Jesus calls a woman a dog 
  2. Jesus was being racist
  3. Jesus was being sexist
  4. Jesus is playing games – he is testing the woman
  5. The woman wins the argument with Jesus
  6. Jesus learns about his mission to the gentiles
  7. Christians are anti-Semitic
  8. Jesus doesn’t know where he is going – saying he is going from Tyre to Sidon to Galilee is like going from Brisbane to the Sunshine coast via Toowoomba!
  9. And, do the ends justify the means

Now there may be other issues you see with the passage but these are ones that I identified as I prepared the sermon. I will make just a brief comment on a couple of these.  The notion that Jesus was not behaving appropriately as a Jewish male and was being racist actually came from a paper written by a Jewish scholar.  He argued that the traditional Christian interpretation that this was a culturally appropriate response for a Jewish male of the time is wrong.  So either Jesus is racist, and this is inconsistent with Jewish behaviour, or the tradition of interpretation in the church is anti-Jewish.

We could spend the whole day arguing about and exploring these issues but the reality is the story does throw up some difficult conundrums.

As I sat perplexed by these conundrums I noticed something else which stood out, something that was not about trying to interpret and defend Jesus but something that appeared to be good news.

The two people who are healed by Jesus, the girl and the deaf mute, have no input into their own healing.  We are told the girl is afflicted by an evil spirit and is not with the woman.  What this evil spirit might be we do not know but what we do know is that girl does nothing, does not exhibit faith, does not go seeking Jesus and for all we know does not follow Jesus later.  Yet she is healed.  Yes, her mother intercedes for her but she herself does nothing and is later discovered at home on bed – well!

The same might be argued of the deaf mute whose friends bring him to Jesus.  It is possible he does not know who Jesus is, he has heard nothing about Jesus and he may not understand where his friends are taking him.  He does not demonstrate faith and we, again, have no evidence that he became a follower of Jesus. Yet, he receives healing.  He receives grace.

Wow! Just, really wow!

Despite all of the other possible doorways and complexities the healing of these two people is somewhat mind boggling!  It is a mystery of God’s grace.

More than that we know there is a possibility that the first healing might never have happened and that second healing we should not know about.

At the beginning of the passage Jesus is looking effectively to hide – Mark tells us, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”  How the woman found out we do not know.  But that she did and that her daughter was healed we do know.

After healing the deaf mute we are told, “Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.”  Jesus did not want this news spread.  Ironically here we are 2000 years later sharing in a story that Jesus order not to be shared that has been heard by millions of people.

Our encounter with these stories is almost as much a mystery as the healings themselves.

There is a hiddeness to God’s actions and these 2 stories sit within the larger story of Mark’s gospel.  In Mark’s gospel the mystery of Jesus identity is a dominant theme.  Through the gospel we find again and again that it is the outsiders who identify and acknowledge Jesus – the demon possessed, the leper, the woman, the Roman soldier and so on.  On the other hand, it is the insiders - Jesus closest followers - that often appear to be confused and in the dark.  Jesus healing and grace is poured out on those who do not appear in any way to qualify – it is done unconditionally.

Returning to the notion of the different doorways we could go through in thinking about this story maybe it is not the questions that we might ask but the questions the story might ask of us.

1.       Are we prepared to intercede for others?
2.       Can we see God’s healing at work in those who do not seek it for themselves?
3.       Do we share the stories of unconditional grace?
4.       Are we excluding others by our thoughts and actions?
5.       Who do we say that Jesus is?

God’s grace is beyond us and sometimes the scriptures are mysterious and beyond our domestication.  And so today as we look at the girl and the man who is healed in awe and wonder that God would restore their lives we come not unlike the woman to kneel before Jesus on behalf of ourselves and others.

There is an ancient prayer of the church which in a way places us even lower than the woman.  It is called the humble prayer of approach and is prayed before communion. It says:

We do not presume
to come to your table, merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy
so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.
But you are the same Lord
whose nature is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood,
that we may evermore dwell in him,
and he in us. Amen.

Our hope is in a God whose nature is always to have mercy and who I believe invites all people to celebrate together at the table.  Not receiving crumbs but the richest feast of acceptance and forgiveness and of life.

The healings reminds us of God’s amazing grace and despite the challenging words of the passage we can say and sing “Your words to me are life and health”.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Does Jesus learn a lesson?

As someone who is quite committed to education and learning I find myself challenged each week by new ideas, new concepts and new learning.  Sometimes I seek these things out and sometimes because of situations or experiences that arise I am forced to act in new ways and reflect on my world view.  Ideally, the intellectual learning might inspire new actions but sadly this is rarely the case, so the question may be asked whether I have actually learnt anything new.  Nevertheless, in my opinion these processes of learning, growing and changing are part of what it means to be human.

Which brings me to an interesting question which was raised for me in the reading of Jesus encounter with the Syrophonecian woman: “Did Jesus learn something new through this encounter?”

This may seem a strange question for some of you, because maybe you assume that Jesus was aware of everything that was going to occur before it happened because he was God’s Son.  And, I have heard this passage preached in exactly this way.  Jesus only referred to the woman as a dog because he knew how she would respond.  But what if something else going here that we might learn from?

If Jesus was, like the rest of us, human, then it should not strike us a strange that Jesus himself learnt and grew throughout his own life.  The first words of Mark’s gospel let us into a secret which is then explored in the interplay of relationships through the drama of Mark’s gospel.

Mark declares in the very first verse, “This is the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God”.  The story then unfolds as a process of discovery about who knows and understands and believes this truth and who doesn’t.  Or maybe to put it another way who are the insiders and who are the outsiders.

One of the ironies of Mark’s gospel is that it is more often than not the outsiders - the gentiles, the ostracised, even the demons - who recognise Jesus whilst the Jews, the insiders and even the disciples struggle to understand and to believe.

What strikes me about this story of the Syrophonecian woman is to see this journey of discovery of God’s relationship with the so-called outsiders is also a journey that Jesus himself appears to have been on.

When the woman comes into the midst of Jesus and his followers pleading for her child Jesus response is dismissive at best but at worst plain insulting – he infers that she is a dog.

This behaviour of Jesus jars against our modern sensibilities but for a first century Jewish Rabbi Jewish words are totally coherent and in context.  Jesus did not need to deal with this person because not only was she a woman but she was not even a Jewish woman.  His response may have been quite acceptable to most of his contemporaries.

This may upset our thinking about Jesus somewhat because we have experienced and seen the bigger story.

In one of joint churches statement about asylum seekers hoping to come to Australia it was said, “Core to the Christian faith is the principle of ‘welcoming the stranger’, and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan guides us as we seek to care for those who are vulnerable and marginalised in society. As Christians, we are called to cross the road to help, to not turn away those in need.”

This is the Jesus we believe we know, Jesus who welcomes all strangers and offer God’s love unconditionally.

Yet in this story Jesus appears to act others and so may be in a process of discovering exactly who he is and who God is calling him to.

The persistence of the woman opens Jesus eyes and heart to her predicament and he responds by offering healing, albeit in an offhand manner as the woman urges him by suggesting that even the little puppies should be welcome to the scraps on the floor.

Jesus, recognises something in the woman and the direction of his compassion flows to someone who would have otherwise not been considered even worthy of Jesus attention.

Just as the way in which Mark is seeking to open people’s minds to Jesus identity and so also God’s concern for those who seek him, whatever their ilk, so at this point in the story Jesus mind appears to be opening up to this very truth about himself and God’s love.

As a follower of Jesus, as his disciple, I find this story encouraging and challenging.  Jesus the man from Nazareth was on a journey of learning, just as any of us are.  I do not have any sense that Jesus had direct knowledge of all things but through his unique bond with the Father and through the Spirit was guided in that journey.

Yet I am also challenged with Jesus response.  Jesus came to see and understand that God’s love was for all people, that there were no outsiders, and so as with the woman he reaches and acts for them and for us.

This raises the question for my life and for yours as we learn new things how do we respond?

How do we live honouring others for who God may have concern even when we believe they do not fit into our little group?

Let me give an example: in the conversations and articles that I have read around the issue of asylum seekers coming to Australia it appears that fear of the other and protection of what is ours drives argument. We play the game of insiders and outsiders and we decide people’s fate.  

The persistence of the Syrophonecian woman in some ways is reflected in the behaviour of many refugees across the world coming to ask persistently for shelter from harm in a new country.  

But, just as the presence of the Syrophonecian woman would have caused some offence among the Jewish males so long ago we struggle with the presence of people who are different who come seeking our help, who come seeking the crumbs from the bounteous table of our Australian lifestyle.

These are complex issues, yet when we consider Jesus learning about who he was, and who was in who was out, we might ask ourselves how we go about caring for those who are different among us.

And maybe we don’t have to worry about going as far afield as the asylum seeker issue to think about the issues of inclusion in the community, of hospitality and of care for others.  Who is it in the congregation and in the community around you whom we need to listen to?  Who is appealing to us just as the woman appealed to Jesus? Who is being persistent in asking for recognition and help?

Our faith is not a static thing as if we get faith and then that’s all there is to it.  Even Jesus our teacher grew and at some level may have even changed as he drew closer to the knowledge of who he was.  So too as our faith grows and is nurtured we respond as the Spirit works in us and we are drawn to the good works of God.

It seems fitting that the story of the healing of the deaf mute follows this story.  A story in which a man has his ears opened and so also is given a new opportunity to hear and respond to God’s love for him.  In the story Jesus could was moved to respond, he heard the woman. As Jesus people here and now the question is what we are hearing and if we are deaf to ask Jesus to unstop our ears that we too might learn and grow.  Amen.